The Hungarian ‘wine dealers’ of two continents
Carolyn and Gábor Bánfalvi, a wine enthusiast couple has found a solution to the misery of many US based Hungarians—their enterprise has been selling carefully selected Hungarian wines to several states of the US. Besides they have set up a webshop shipping Hungarian wines to all European countries. And they still seem to have some spare time, because the Bánfalvis still run a wine bar and wine tour company in Budapest, Hungary. How can they manage all the tasks of e-commerce in two continents? Carolyn Bánfalvi answers our questions.
– How did you two meet and how did you start working with wines?
– Gábor and I met in the Atlantic Ocean, when we were both working on a Carnival Cruise ship. When I moved to Hungary in the late 1990s we started exploring the Hungarian wine regions, and that is how we both got into wine. Since then we’ve both taken WSET courses (I just have one more exam left in the diploma program), and have really immersed ourselves in learning about wine, especially Hungarian wine. As a journalist, I wrote about Hungarian wine, and we started doing food and wine tours when we founded Taste Hungary in 2008. We slowly started getting more deeply involved in wine, as we discovered ways that we could further spread the reach of Hungarian wine.
– I remember your lovely book on Hungarian food (Food Wine Budapest), I used it a lot. But I guess writing and organizing food and wine tours was just the beginning for you.
– We opened The Tasting Table in 2014, and before Covid hit, we had finally reached our goal: to have two educational wine tastings daily, to introduce travelers to the wines that we love. (Now we have re-opened, but we just have a few tasters every week.) We always heard the same things from our guests: they were so happy to discover Hungarian wine, but they were disappointed that they could not find the wine when they returned to their home countries.
– Indeed, at Hungarianwines.eu we keep getting emails with the same problem, and somehow most Hungarian wine stores do not take much effort to ship wines abroad. What did you do then?
– So, at the Tasting Table we started regularly shipping wine to guests in EU countries. A few months ago we launched our online shop for EU residents. In the shop we offer many of the wines that we sell at the Tasting Table (we are still adding more products), as well as curated selections (which will change every few months). After launching our US wine club, we also launched Hungarian wine clubs in the EU. In Europe our wine clubs are shipped monthly, and we have four types of clubs: Tokaj Wine Club, White Wine Club, Red Wine Club, and Mixed Wine Club. All club shipments include our educational packet of tasting notes, information about the regions, and recipes.
To the US from an ‘obsucre country’
– Last year we started a new company and began importing Hungarian wine to the US, and at the end of 2019 we launched our boutique online wine shop and Hungarian wine club, through which we ship to many US states. Our focus is on high-quality wines, from family wineries which are mostly on the small side. Though Hungarian wine has been getting good press in recent years, these wines are still not easy to find in the US.
Through our quarterly Hungarian Wine Club—which as far as I know, is the first one in existence—subscribers receive six new wines every three months (along with tasting notes, recipes, and an educational packet). We are proud to have 100+ loyal wine club members already, as well as customers around the country! Before the pandemic, we were also doing private Hungarian wine tastings in the DC area—guided by Gábor, who presented our wines to groups at events organized at their homes and businesses. Since the pandemic started, Gábor has been doing weekly Saturday evening virtual wine tastings on facebook (now we are taking a break from this for a few weeks, but we will be back doing this again soon!). Though the tastings were free, participants could also order the wines in advance so they could taste along with us, as many did.
We are also licensed as a wholesaler/distributor in DC, and we are working on getting our wines placed in selected shops, restaurants, and bars. Wine importing and sales—especially when the focus is solely on a relatively obscure country, is not an easy business to break into.
Passion for wines wins bureaucracy
– And how can you manage all these things? Getting all the licences, managing such a complicated business with sales both in the US and in Europe, it must be a lot of work! How big is your staff, how many people do you work with?
– We are a small team now (since Covid, unfortunately we had to let a few people go). We still have three sommeliers/managers who handle the tastings at The Tasting Table and the wine sales in Europe. Gabor and I handle all of the US wine sales (and we just hired a warehouse assistant here and a delivery person, who happens to be a Hungarian expat). We have a team of about two dozen tour guides, who unfortunately do not have much work now. It is a lot of work – it took Gabor a few years to manage to get all of the correct licenses in the US, and figure out the logistics. But all of these different ways that we work with Hungarian wine are like puzzle pieces, and we really enjoy being able continue to offer our customers different services that can bring them closer to Hungarian food and wine – and to keep them supplied with tasty wines.
– How about your new shop in Budapest?
– At the end of May, our team in Budapest opened a new wine shop (we have had it in the works for awhile, and decided to go ahead with it, despite all that has happened in recent months). The shop is located across from The Tasting Table, at Bródy Sándor utca 22. We have pours of different wines every week—new arrivals and staff favorites—so you can discover new wines while browsing.
– Your wine selection is really diverse and exciting. How do you choose wines? Do you have time to travel around Hungarian wine regions?
– We do travel to the Hungarian wine regions as often as we can. Gabor mainly chooses the wines that we sell in the US, and our team at The Tasting Table has curated our selection there. They stay on top of all of the new developments, and taste many wines!